Things to Do in Barcelona
Lying just to the west of Barcelona’s famous Las Ramblas Boulevard, and home of the gleaming Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), the Raval is a once-tatty ‘barrio’ (district) that is rapidly cleaning itself up. Historically working class, today new boutiques, art galleries, bars and restaurants are springing up in this inner-city neighborhood at a rate of knots but neglected corners still retain an earthy air and a multicultural blend of Catalan, Arabic, Romanian, Indian and Indonesian cultures. Besides MACBA, the narrow alleys of El Raval are home to the ornate Gran Teatre del Liceu – one of Europe’s foremost opera houses and adorned with Japanese-style decoration – which opened in 1847, Antoni Gaudí’s twisting, fluid Palau Güell and the Romanesque beauty of ninth-century Sant Pau del Camp, the oldest church in the city.
Explore Spain’s seafaring past by visiting the Maritime Museum, or Museu Maritim, in Barcelona. Located just steps away from the waterfront, the museum takes visitors on a journey through one of the country’s richest areas of history: exploration at sea.
The museum experience begins with the Gothic building itself, which once belonged to the former Barcelona Royal Shipyard. Within the cavernous brick structure, which dates back to the 13th century, expect to find all manner of sea-related treasures, ranging from maps to weapons, paintings, and even surfboards. Then, of course, there are the boats, which include model-sized versions, and, most notably, a life-size galley warship replica.
While the masses head to Barceloneta Beach, those in search of relatively quieter shores take their towels to Nova Icària Beach. Located between Bogatell and Barceloneta Beaches, Nova Icària offers a 400-meter stretch of sand, along with all the amenities, including showers, lifeguards, rentable umbrellas, and more.
Its ideal location just adds to the appeal: walking southwest along its promenade will lead you to the nearby Port Olimpic and its many restaurants; meanwhile, head inland and you can explore the Poblenou neighborhood, known for its evolving blend of industry meets innovation. The beach is also a paradise of outdoor activity, including volleyball, ping pong, and water-related activities, such as kayak, paddleboard, windsurfing and more.
From Roman times to the present day capital of Catalonia, the city of Barcelona has hundreds of years of history and many stories to tell. The Barcelona City History Museum preserves and communicates the historical heritage of the city for locals and visitors alike. There are multiple exhibitions throughout the city with present findings, as well as facilities for ongoing research.
The museum conserves many of the Roman sites of Barcelona as archaeological sites — while others like the city's Palau Reial Major and the Jewish Quarter date back to the Middle Ages. There are also a fair number of sites related to more modern significances, including Franco and the Spanish Civil War or iconic architect Antoni Gaudi. The museum itself was inaugurated just after the end of the Spanish Civil War, in 1943. Its headquarters at Casa Padellas is a prime example of a Catalán gothic courtyard, and contains an entire preserved quarter of the ancient Roman city of Barcino.
Though Barcelona’s Sants Station gets the most train and foot traffic, the city’s França Railway Station wins when it comes to overall style. Considered by many to be the most beautiful station in town, it’s a sumptuous mix of architectural styles, featuring shiny marble floors, Art Deco detailing, and sunshine-lit, domed platforms.
The station dates back to the International Exhibition in 1929, and was later renovated for the 1992 Olympics. Once serving as the terminus for trains coming from and going to other places in Europe — namely, France — it’s now a hub for local trains (with international trains now traveling in and out of Sants).
The historic heart of Barcelona is the Cuitat Vella, or Old City, home to the majority of the city’s tourist attractions and encompassing the districts of El Raval, Barri Gotic, La Ribera and Barceloneta. With its abundance of iconic architecture, world-class museums and historic sights, most visitors to the city find themselves spending the majority of their time in the Cuitat Vella.
Las Rablas is the Old City’s main thoroughfare, separating the residential neighborhood and red light district of El Raval from the largely pedestrianized Barri Gotic, or Gothic Quarter. The Barri Gotic makes a popular starting point for a walking tour of the city, with sights including the historic Placa del Rei; the 14th century Palau Reial Major; the Gothic Barcelona Cathedral; the glitzy shopping street of Portal del Angel; the lively La Boqueria food market; and several Gaudi masterpieces, including the Palau Güell.
More Things to Do in Barcelona
One of the most famous points of interest on Montjuïc is the Poble Espanyol. The so-called "Spanish Village" was built for the 1929 International Exhibition to show off models of the architecture specific to each region in Spain.
Visitors ambling through the mixed-and-matched village will find themselves one minute walking down a street characteristic of the Basque region, and the next, standing before a home reminiscent of the Andalucian style. Also included are copies of Galician and Castilian architecture and, of course, Catalan dwellings.
Filling these buildings are various craft shops left over from the International Exhibition that are still churning out keepsake crafts. There are also several bars, cafes and shops throughout to quench every thirst, appetite and need for a souvenir.
At the heart of Barcelona, the Gran Teatre del Liceu is one of the most important opera houses in all of Europe and one of the most impressive sights of the city. Since its opening on La Rambla in 1847, it has been a cultural, artistic, and political hub for Catalonia. The theater was originally opened as a music conservatory and performance venue for students. It was kept up by private shareholders as opposed to government or monarchy for many years. It survived a major fire in 1994, after which the building was fully restored, updated, and transferred to public ownership. The original foyer, staircase, and main facade are still intact.
The theater is a major venue for classical music, opera, and dance in Barcelona. Many of the world’s most famous opera singers have performed on its stage. Its beautiful interior is worth seeing even if you’re unable to attend a show.
Get closer to Barcelona’s vibrant art scene by perusing the masterpieces of one its most famous artists, Antoni Tapies. Born in Barcelona, Tapies specialized in contemporary art that was dominated by social themes. His work, which was influenced by the likes of fellow Catalan artist Joan Miro, is imaginative and abstract, employing elements beyond just paint and canvas but also rags, paper and other scraps.
Founded by Tapies himself, the foundation serves to promote and provide education around contemporary art. While there, you can explore a collection of his creations, an impressive library, as well as revolving exhibitions by other artists. The building itself is a work of art too: Constructed in the late 1800s, it was considered a pioneer of Modernisme architecture. Meanwhile, you won’t be able to miss the cloud-and-chair sculpture that tops it, which is meant to represent meditative attitude and aesthetic contemplation.
If you haven’t heard of Barcelona’s Plaça de Sant Jaume, then its City Hall — called the Casa de la Ciutat, in Catalan — should give you reason to pay this square a visit. The headquarters for local government, the building features a grand façade, which dates back to 1847, and an open-once-weekly interior that you’ll be keen to fit into your travel schedule.
That’s because behind its commanding but relatively simple exterior, there are some pretty exquisite treasures discover, such as the building’s medieval-style 14th-century Saló de Cent, and its mural-covered Hall of Chronicles. The plaza itself is pretty noteworthy too, as this was once the site of the Roman forum, and is also home to the Palau de la Generalitat de Catalunya (the seat of Catalan government), whose dome-topped building sits just opposite City Hall.
Plaça de Sant Jaume’s Palau de la Generalitat de Catalunya is much more than just a building with a pretty neoclassical façade: this is the seat of the Catalan government, from where 100 presidents have governed. Constructed between the 15th and 17th centuries, the building is a symbol of Catalan perseverance, having stood the test of time through many historic challenges.
It’s not just special because of its history, either. Apart from the attractive dome-topped exterior, its interior is perhaps even more impressive. It features a Gothic chapel, elaborate ceremonial halls, loads of paintings and sculptures, and a sunlight-filled Courtyard of Orange Trees, or Pati dels Tarongers — among other Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance elements.
Many come to Barcelona to see the structures of the city designed by famous architect Antoni Gaudi, with his distinct vision and trademark use of intricate mosaics (called trencadis.) Not many get to learn about the process and create their own mosaics, which is where the Mosaiccos workshop comes in. With classes and activities suited for all ages, participants learn the technique, choose their design, and then craft a unique handmade souvenir. The most popular workshop is called the “Gaudi Experience,” which allows visitors to not only see but create the art itself.
There is also a shop on site with unique gifts all crafted in this broken tile and glass style. Culturally decorative mosaics have been a tradition for more than 1,000 years. It’s a hands-on way to experience the distinctive design and style that has shaped the city of Barcelona.
One of Barcelona’s coolest neighborhoods, the student and art quarter of Gràcia showcases a different side to the city, with its laid-back bars and restaurants, and traditional Catalonian feel. Connected to the city by the Passeig de Gràcia, the residential area is popular among those looking to rent cheap accommodation on the outskirts of the city and a number of travelers escape to Gràcia to sample the city’s most bohemian haunts.
Placa del Sol is at the heart of Gràcia, where clusters of tapas bars and terrace restaurants serve up an array of traditional Catalan cuisine, but the area is most famous for the Parc Güell, one of the city’s most celebrated parks. The iconic gardens perched on the hill of El Carmel were designed by Antoni Gaudi between 1900-1914 and form a key part of Barcelona’s UNESCO World Heritage listed ‘Works of Antoni Gaudi’.
One of the most popular districts in Barcelona’s Cuitat Vella, or Old City, La Ribera is a charming maze of streets at the forefront of the city’s design, entertainment and fashion trends, earning itself the nickname ‘Barcelona’s SoHo’. Located just east of the central Barri Gotic area and encompassing the historic sub-neighborhood of El Born and the picturesque Parc de la Ciutadella, La Ribera is one of the city’s hottest destinations, teeming with intimate cafés, bijou bars and traditional restaurants.
A number of key architectural masterpieces lie in La Ribera, most notably the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palau de la Musica Catalana, a modernist marvel designed by architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner and the domineering Gothic Santa Maria del Mar, or St Mary of the Sea Cathedral, built in the 12th century by Berenguer de Montagut and renowned as one of the country’s finest examples of Catalan Gothic architecture.
As the capital of Catalunya, Barcelona is the center of the region’s history; and there is no better place to take it all in than the History Museum of Catalonia. Catalonia has long struggled with preserving its culture and independence, and this museum seeks to raise awareness about the heritage and identity of the Catalan people.
In-depth interactive exhibits focus on the development of Catalonia from prehistory through the growth of various industries to present day. The exhibits focused on the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s rule are particularly well done. The museum explains the occupation of the region throughout the years by the Romans, the Moors, and others — each leaving their own mark on the culture. In addition to the permanent collection, there are consistently good temporary exhibitions as well as a library, restaurant, and open-air rooftop. The museum is housed in the Palau de Mar, which has a history and significance of its own.
Whether you like your animals fluffy or ferocious, they’ll be something that fits the bill at the Barcelona Zoo, one of the city’s most family friendly attractions, spread over 14 hectares within the Parc de la Ciutadella. Over 7,000 animals and 400 different species call the zoo home, with everything from dolphins to rhinoceros living in quarters that mimic their natural habitats.
Since opening its gates in 1892 to showcase the private fauna collection of Lluís Martí, the zoo has expanded its scope to include dedicated breeding programs and preservation work with species under threat of extinction. The zoo’s most famous resident, Snowflake – the world’s only known albino gorilla – sadly died in 2003, but there are plenty of other creatures large and small to entertain the crowds. Bornean organutans, a Sumatran tiger, a giant anteater, hippopotamuses, giraffes, elephants, flamingos and even miniature Shetland ponies all call the zoo home.
Barcelona visitors keen to have a shopping experience beyond the hustle and bustle of Passeig de Gracia or the tourist shops of Las Ramblas will find just what they’re looking for at Diagonal Mar. This shopping center, located north of the city’s tourist center, offers 150 different stores, including a range of Spanish and international brands.
The mall also has loads of other mall amenities, from an upper-level food court to kid play area, and even free WiFi. You can also to there for entertainment, too, by catching a flick at Diagonal Mar’s movie theater (which features movies in original, English-language version). The center’s location also provides a good excuse for you to explore this less-touristy part of town by taking a short walk to the nearby beach, or even by heading southwest along the coastline, toward the city, to explore Barcelona’s industrial-meets-innovation Poblenou neighborhood.
Montjuïc is the hill situated on the southwestern border of Barcelona. The name of the hill translates to "Mountain of the Jews," which refers to the Jewish cemetery and possible settlement there at one time. Home to Barcelona's World Exhibition in 1929 and then the 1992 Olympics, Montjuïc has been developed to include a number of attractions, including museums, theatres and clubs. An old castle still stands on the hill as well, dating back to days when political prisoners were executed en masse by the Spanish government.
Popular attractions include the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya and CaixaForum, both of which house interesting collections of art, ranging from medieval to modern. Other famous points of interest are the Poble Espanyol - Spanish Village - and Joan Miro museum. Come nightfall, find people from all over the city perched on ledges to watch the spectacle that is La Font Magica show, a colorful water display in the main fountain that is set to music.
Though Egypt may not come to mind when you think of Barcelona, think again, as the city’s Egyptian Museum displays an impressive collection of some 1,000 ancient artifacts from the African country. The pieces once belonged to the museum’s founder, Catalan Jordi Clos, and are now on display in the intimate and relatively crowd-free galleries found just off the main drag of Passeig de Gracia.
The diverse permanent collection spans everything from ceramics to jewelry, mummies, and a host of items related to the culture and funeral practices. Meanwhile, rotating exhibitions offer other themed looks into Egypt’s distant past. Cap off your visit with a snack at the outdoor terrace and a visit the museum’s Egypt-inspired store.
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